"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Encounter XXXVII: A Poem by Anne Shifrer

Elizabeth Bishop Scholars Tour Great Village

Bleeding heart, buttercups, and big red-orange poppies
with black, hirsute centers. Sylvia Plath would see them
as hairy tarantulas sizzling on hell flames,
so would Jonathan Edwards. What would you see,

Elizabeth? — something more subtle, the forget-me-nots
tucked in a corner like tiny blue buttons on baby clothes?
wild roses lapping the breeze or the lupins, tangled
in weeds but still standing tall? We all speak your language

so, of course, we say to each other, “lupins like apostles,”
one of your images that startles because you so rarely
permit yourself such grandiloquence. And we all see it,

the strange aptness — yes, lupins line the village roadways,
tall, prophetic silences like the pencil-thin apostles on Chartres,
especially at evening, gathering crystals from the fog.

“Apostles?” You were so much more the stoneworker
Ghiselbrutus – folk-artist donkeys chiseled
in small unexpected places on the cathedral.

Your village is much the same, Elizabeth, it lasted
longer than you hoped, well past your abidance.
But much has softened, the steeple which held
your mother’s scream now has iron curlicues
that look like cartoon-eyes of an owl or the spectacles
of Groucho Marx. It’s no longer sharpened
by irredeemable pain. All of that is dead now.

Our reluctant tour guide, the shy, brilliant fellow
from Britain leads us around quite aimlessly, wondering aloud
what we would like to see. Everything is, as you might expect,
connected only by “and” and “and,” and, just as you said,

nothing coheres. Your animals do not arrive to gather this family
of word-buffs into holiness. But we are, somehow, a family,
an odd dysfunctional one, as we amble along quoting your poems
at salient moments and laughing, as we walk around and around
trying to make our stumbling your whole biography.

Sometimes, I think that each of us is crying somewhere
inside — for you, Elizabeth — for all the ways
in which you couldn’t connect, for all the ways
in which happiness failed you, crying for you,
with you, because look how your world is still here.

Anne Shifrer has taught and written about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry for more than twenty years. She is currently compiling an anthology of poems about Elizabeth Bishop. If you know of such poems in print or have poems of your own, she would be interested in knowing about them. Contact Anne at Anne.Shifrer@usu.edu. {Ed. Note: we will post more about this anthology project as it evolves – stay tuned!)

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